Sunday, July 28, 2013


Ask the Administrator: A Fresh Start?

The break was a blast -- I’ll share highlights on Friday -- but when we came back I found this in my inbox,and it seemed like it needed a quick answer.  Some of it goes well beyond my expertise, so I’m hoping that some wise and worldly readers with different sorts of training will chime in helpfully in the comments.

A frustrated young correspondent writes:

After graduating high school in 2008, I went straight to community college. I knew the cost of a 4 year was too high for a part-time working student, didn't want my parents to pay for anything past one book, and was in limbo over what career or sort of degree I wanted to work towards. In the end, I decided a business degree was the best choice to work for since it possessed endless career possibilities. Upon starting, I did very well as I always did. However, I slipped fast halfway through; I'm a perfectionist to a fault. I was so ashamed of myself I couldn't even show up for my finals. It was already too late to drop as well. The reasons why I couldn't cope well with any sort of mistake and school life in general was because of my own personal problems. I was a loner and found it hard to fit in anywhere, life was emotionally difficult at home, and it felt like none of my classmates or acquaintances understood what I was going through. Eventually, I left my sales job from my mother's demands to find a more stable, "real" job. I found it difficult to find even minimum wage jobs at this point. The ones I was offered never went through and what little confidence I had left fizzled out. I knew what my problems were but the lack of support made me fall every time I made a meager attempt to stand up again. It kills me to say that I'm a very weak person deep down despite my appearance.
One day though, I ended up meeting the love of my life and finally received the kind of emotional support I had been looking for all my life. I began to regain my confidence and had goals again; I had something to work for. For a year, I moved out and my state of mind cleared up. But then my worst fear came back to haunt me. He had to move away for work where I couldn't follow. Although I found another job to help out, it wasn't enough to support myself so I regrettably moved home. I will be able to move out again in a year's time but right now, I want to make something of myself. Moving out gave me the fresh air I needed to deal with the suppression at home. I feel like I've wasted a lot of time but I still believe it's never too late to continue. The only thing stopping me right now is my hesitation over my past and the timing of my motivation. Honestly, I want to attend another community college but because gas is expensive, I feel forced to attend the same college from years ago. So these are my questions:
          1. Is it possible to reapply to the same college I never formally left?
2. Who must I talk to particularly to assess my situation?3. Will I still be eligible for financial aid for the first time even though I have a fully failed semester from 5 years ago?4. I intend to pursue a different career. In most cases, will I have to retake the classes that pertained to my previous degree choice, or any for that matter?5. I have less than a month to get things in order before fall classes start. Is it too late to attempt to reapply and sign up for at least 2 classes with my situation?6. In the case that I do get accepted to continue studying, will I have to retake assessment tests?7. If I have to go to the other college instead, must I get a transcript from the previous school? Or is it unnecessary because I have no credits to transfer? 
Thank you for reading this. I really appreciate any answers you may have for me. Although, you may be unable to precisely answer questions #3-7 because of different school policies, I figure you could help me out with the first two questions.

I’ll tackle specifics first.

Yes, it’s possible to reapply to the college you never formally left.  You’d be surprised how many students just walk away without giving formal notice; it’s something that every community college has seen before, plenty of times.  We have processes for dealing with that.  It’s okay.

Financial aid merits a discussion with the campus financial aid office.  Although some colleges have “academic bankruptcy” policies, in which you can wipe the slate clean and start over again, the federal regulations don’t recognize that.  It would be a good idea to make an appointment with someone in Financial Aid to ask about “Satisfactory Academic Progress.”  The way the rules are written, an earlier, “fully failed” semester could cause issues for you after your first semester back, just because your cumulative gpa would still look low.  Different colleges have different ways of handling that.

Assuming that you passed some classes before the disastrous semester, some of them may still apply to your new major.  On my campus, for example, every degree program requires English 101.  That means that if you took and passed English 101 as a business major, then switched to, say, a Psych major, you don’t have to retake English 101.  It carries over.  Anything you failed wouldn’t carry over, though, so if you failed English 101, you’d have to retake it.

For most campuses, it’s not too late to reapply.  (If you live in some California districts, it may be.)  Whether or not you have to retake assessment tests depends on local campus policy.  If you switch campuses, you’ll have to get a transcript sent over, but that’s remarkably easy.  I wouldn’t stress about that.  People do it all the time.  Even if you don’t have any credits to transfer, it will matter for financial aid purposes.

In terms of the price of gasoline, I’d suggest considering online classes.  Many community colleges offer them, and they can help with transportation issues and constantly-shifting job hours.  Of course, they require consistent internet access and considerable self-discipline.  But if you have those, online courses could allow you to start at your own pace and avoid a lot of driving.

All of that said, though, I’m a little worried about what sounds like helplessness.  This is where I’m hoping some of my wise and worldly readers can chime in.  

If you go in with the belief that you’re “a very weak person,” you’ll find ways to confirm that.  I’m wondering if the first order of business might be to find a way to engage the world that makes you feel stronger and more confident, entirely independent of what a boyfriend or parent does.  Staking everything on a boyfriend who will save you is awfully high risk.  If you can take care of yourself, instead of needing to be saved, you’ll be in a better position with guys anyway.  Being capable and confident can be attractive in itself, and it can help you contain the damage if someone lets you down.

Different people find that sense of capability in different ways.  If home is toxic, then look outside it at other options.  Some people find it at work.  Some find it through their church.  Some get involved in social or political causes.  Some become intensely involved with others who share an arcane cultural interest, whether that’s Star Trek or great country singers of the 1940’s.  Some like to build things.  Whatever stirs you, jump in.  You’ll find affirmation from other people, and you’ll have something that’s specific to you.  

The issues may go deeper -- I’m hoping some of my readers are more insightful on this than I am -- but sometimes it’s okay to start shallow.  Find affirmation where you can, and build on it.  Once you feel like you’re on a mission, instead of just waiting for the next external event to throw you around, you’ll be in much better shape to benefit from college.  

Good luck!  I hope you’re able to find something that stirs you, and that interrupts that inner voice that keeps telling you that you’re weak.  As the writer Annie Dillard once put it, the inner life is frequently stupid.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you suggest?  

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Hello, young person! (I hope you're reading comments!)

Man oh man, it was like reading another version of my own Life Story.

First of all, it's okay to start small. Nothing says you have to enroll full-time right off the bat. Would you consider perhaps starting with two classes - or even one - to get your feet wet again?

Doe the CC you'd attended have a different campus? I teach at a fairly large CC that has multiple campuses; I've taught at three of those campuses - two regularly - and it's amazing to me how different campuses in the same school can feel. If one particular campus brings back some bad karmic mojo (excuse the mixed metaphors), you might consider an equidistant campus, if that's a possibility. An online class might also be a good idea, as per Dean Dad.

Consider not matriculating right away, if that's a concern. You can get financial aid, but you might consider Work Study, also, which (in my experience) often can be arranged in tandem with financial aid. Not only that, but finding a campus job can help you connect with your school in ways you might not have thought possible.

I went to a CC after high school, then transferred to a very good university, from which I promptly and flamingly flunked out of. (I'm oddly almost a bit pleased with how badly I did. I mean, it took EFFORT to do that badly. But I digress.) When I finally went back - after another attempt - I was so paranoid about flunking out again, I got a campus job at my university's writing center. Best thing I ever did. I wound up getting some badly-needed mentoring, made friends (some of whom I'm still close to), had a flexible schedule that worked itself out very nicely with my ever-changing schedule, etc., etc. There might be a hour limit of how much time you can put in - say, 20 hours a week - but some campus jobs pay can pay quite well, especially if you stay there for awhile. (I wound up staying at my tutoring job for 3 1/2 years - nearly the entire duration of my undergrad tenure. By the time I left, I was earning about as much per hour as I do now as a certified substitute teacher.)

Plus, you'll already be on campus, so that can eliminate at least some driving back and forth. You may need to get another part-time job. Of course, you may want to look into seeing if there are any full-time jobs on campus, too - say, that of an administrative assistant, in a department you think you might be interested in working in professionally. after graduating. (If you want to be an English teacher, for example, are there openings in the English dept. as an admin asst.? Just a thought.)

You're sounding very overwhelmed, and that's okay. But it's okay to start small, too. If you have to restart your education next semester, you'll have time to research things a bit more, if it comes to that.
Dear Persistent Student,

It's great you're giving college another shot, and I hope you give yourself more than another shot. It sounds like you are trying to plan the bureaucratic details of your reentry carefully, and that's great.

I urge you to take as much care to plan taking care of yourself as taking care of paperwork (both are important!). It's pretty common to be both perfectionist and risk-averse in college -- enough that there is some good perspective from the University of Illinois Counseling Center, whose staff is familiar with common concerns of college students like you. You can find some very specific advice on addressing perfectionism (PDF), which at a glance looks like it's based on decent research.
Great advice there from Prof. Dorn. I see a few in there that I need to take myself. I'll add that many campuses have mental health professionals that could have offered a listening ear when you felt no one else knew what you were going through.

I'll post the answers to your questions from my campus' perspective separately, but the short answer is that NONE of them are an issue if you want to go back to school with the same energy that made you an effective sales person in an earlier career and successful in your first few semesters.

I agree with Dean Dad that learned helplessness is a bigger problem than anything else on your list. It can be unlearned, since it sounds like you were doing OK when graduated from HS.

I was reminded of an exercise we sometimes use with students who have math anxiety in the form of "I hate math". It starts by asking them when they last liked math. Just about everyone liked it up to some point, but they have forgotten that they were once "good at math" and liked doing it and now obsess over something that happened on a particular day in 6th grade or whatever. Usually someone (teacher or bully) pushed a button on a defenseless kid and the adult is still that kid when in a math class. Just recognizing that this is what happened can sometimes solve the problem.

There seems to be an element of that in what happened with the job you liked, and with your "bad semester". There is already one story of that type in the comments, and I could add my own and others I have encountered over the years.

Finally, there are a lot of jobs out there that are not "real jobs". My mother never really thought that doing physics research and publishing it in journals was a job. Teaching undergrads is real, but explaining new physics to professors is not. She may have a point! I know someone who is an entrepreneur, and he makes a living without actually being employed. He owns and runs the company, but his income appears only when he sells it. You know what skills you have, so learn how to use them.
I teach at a CC, and some of our best students quit for a few years and came back when they were really ready. That can be 5 or 10 or even 20 years later. A year or two off is surprisingly common.

Up front, my advice would be for you to register (paying out of your own pocket) for a single gen ed class (such as English comp or basic math) that you failed the first time around. Focus on it. Do it!

1. I'm not sure you would even have to "reapply" to my college if you weren't kicked out. Have you tried just going in and registering for a class? At most you might have to talk to an academic advisor, or get a new password.

2. An academic advisor. At my college, you can just walk in without an appointment.

3. Financial aid questions are for experts. That said, if you only failed one semester, you are probably still in good standing. The average of a really good semester and a really bad one is around a "C". Even failing all of your classes in your one and only semester will not block you from starting over but you might be on probation.

4. As Dean Dad explained, most of your classes will still count. See answer to #2. A major difference in math requirements is the only problem I see. Everyone takes english and history.

5. No. The selection might not be very good, but you aren't trying to build a full schedule.

6. Not at my college, unless you never took the first class required by your scores. (An example might be that you started english but not math. You would have to retake the math placement test at my college.) Once you have a college credit, even an F, that says where you belong next. We allow students to step back to a lower level math class if they realize their placement was too high the first time, and they can "audit" a class that they passed 5 or 10 years ago to get back up to speed.

7. Yes, even if you have a 0.0 gpa.
If your CC has a counselling office, I'd definitely go there and seek some advice on how to avoid pitfalls you've been in before. I've found them immensely useful (at my university) in terms of tackling some of the academic struggles I've encountered. If you're a student, they're often free or heavily subsidized. The advantage of an on-campus counsellor is that they are very knowledgeable and aware of how and when academic issues come up and can give you very specific advice.

What I also found useful is all the professional development courses. I took one on thesis writing, but there are often ones on paper writing, studying, time management, etc. They are well worth the money.
Don't feel like you have to rush into things - the college will be there next semester - and it might be that taking a few months to figure your situation out will give you a chance to start strong.

My college had a way you could retroactively drop an entire semester - you could do it for hardship (medical or personal reasons). If you can get a councilor to sign off that you were clinically depressed and that compromised your ability to complete school, you could get a retroactive drop for medical reasons.

Another thing I would consider - read some books on building confidence. "The Powerful Self" (Stonsky) is a short read with good exercises that help build confidence. You might also try Will Bowen's "A Complaint Free World" as it also has quite a few self-empowering exercises.

You continue to try to get yourself on a path you think will let you get ahead. I think that shows great determination and I think proves that you are not a "weak person". You may have weaknesses but we all do. The important thing is to assess them and work around them, leveraging your strengths.

Regarding the affirmation and dealing with feeligns of helplessness - please try Captain Awkward ( She has excellent advice for all sorts of awkward and worse situations, and it sounds like just the sort of place this reader could start to find a better directions.

Good luck! You'll make it.
Some colleges and universities have a grade amnesty policy for returning students - for use in cases just like yours. A lot of students come to college and crash and burn. They come back older and wiser, but have all this baggage on the transcript.

In our case, the policy applies for those who have been away for longer than 4 (or maybe 5) years, and it wipes away all Ds and Fs. Now that may mean that you lose some credits (as even Ds still count) that you have to repeat, but it may be a chance for a fresh start. It's worth asking about if/when you apply for readmission.
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